It’s hard to believe that this slight, softly spoken young man has created the bright, bold images of girls that adorn the walls. Almost shaking at the thought of having to speak English with me, Badruzzaman, or Badru for short, puts up with my questions in broken Indonesian and tries to explain the story behind a painting in his latest exhibition, “My Girls.”
The 29-year-old artist from Bantul, on the outskirts of Yogyakarta, blushes and fidgets nervously as he talks, until the vivacious Vivi Yip, decked out in a designer jumpsuit with blue and red racing stripes, steps in to save the day.
“Badru is very shy and introverted. You can tell a lot more about him through his drawings than from asking him questions,” said Vivi, the curator and gallery owner.
“He doesn’t consciously try and tell a story with each and every picture. You should look at the whole exhibition as one story told through a number of characters.”
Eleven of Badru’s drawings and paintings of comic-strip-style girls with oversized heads hang on the walls of the Vivi Yip Art Room in South Jakarta, challenging viewers to understand them.
They are certainly playful, almost twee, with their colorful locks and simplified features. They are surrounded by both adorable and ghastly childhood characters — a fluffy pink soft toy next to a clown who has pulled out his own heart, for example — giving the pictures an eeriness akin to a children’s story with a sick twist.
While these girls cannot ignore the demons that haunt them, they sit strong in the middle of their canvases, unwilling to be nudged out of the picture. Some hold expressions that show they are deeply affected by the negative forces around them, others show resistance — but all remain sturdy and pivotal to the story.
“We can’t say our enemies are necessarily enemies,” Vivi said. “Sometimes we learn from them and they make us stronger. They become our greatest teachers.”
This is best depicted in the painting “You Only Live Once,” an acrylic that portrays a girl in streetwear and a baseball cap surrounded by demons, including a particularly worried little owl that she holds close to her chest. She is the most resilient character of them all, not rejecting her demons, but using them to give her strength.
Badru is enchanted by girls such as this one, a girl with confidence. Empowered young women often take center stage in his paintings. In “Menikmati Hari Dengan Sepotong Roti” (“Enjoy Your Day With a Piece of Bread”), the artist depicts a woman who makes the most of life and surrounds herself with positivity. Another is portrayed in “A Way Out,” a red-gloved redheaded vixen loading a pistol, presumably to knock off her enemies.
“I like women who challenge the world and enjoy life,” Badru wrote in the exhibition program.
Listening to Vivi and Badru talk about the artworks, the characters seem as much Vivi’s creations as Badru’s, inspired by a girlhood of dolls, bunnies and make believe.
Stylistically that’s no surprise — playful street art with a tinge of gore is typical to a contingent of street artists from Yogyakarta. Eko Nugroho and Wedhar Riyadi are just two of many who contrast the naive with the sinister in street-art and pop-art styles.
But what sets Badru apart is his choice to see the world through a woman’s eyes.
“We all have both masculine and feminine traits within us,” Vivi said. “Badru is much more comfortable painting from a female perspective. He relates to the feminine more than the masculine.”
Asking Badru why this is the case is not easy. He’s not exactly sure but says he values women. “I will continue to observe women, understand them and love them,” he wrote in the program.
There is no doubt that Badru’s depiction of women is something very personal, perhaps an exploration of his own gender identity or a quest to resolve something troubling within himself.
While Badru idealizes strong, sassy girls, he also depicts girls who are disturbed or jaded. “It’s Up to You” is a black-and-white painting that shows a little girl holding a lollipop. She has a solemn expression on her face, suggesting she has let the negative forces take over. With the work’s title, Badru reminds us that negativity is a choice.
Similarly, “Take It or Leave It” shows an inquisitive girl getting advice from her friends.
“When you have a problem, people will try and give you all sorts of advice,” Vivi said. “This painting is a reminder that you can take it or leave it. You always have a choice.”
While some may find it hard to take Badru’s playful style seriously, all of his works come with an inspirational message.
And the messages are not just for girls. They are also for boys who like girls.
‘My Girls’ A solo exhibition by Badruzzaman
Until March 12
Vivi Yip Art Room
Jl. Warung Buncit Raya No. 98
Pejaten, South Jakarta
Tel: 021 790 0480